Interview with Don Montague

February 16, 2021

Kitesurfing pioneer and natural inventor Don Montague spoke about his experiences, and the SP80 team introduced him to our project to break the world speed sailing record: it was an inspiring and instructive exchange!

18:00 in Switzerland, 7:00 in Hawaii. The videoconference began with the 3 SP80 co-founders on one side and Don Montague on the other, coffee in hand. The atmosphere was immediately relaxed and the stories began flowing. Don discovered kitesurfing in 1996 and contributed greatly to the discipline’s development as the R&D manager at Naish Sails. Twenty years later, he set his eyes on energy production and co-founded Makani Power, a company that has harnessed high altitude winds using kite wings. The potential of the start-up was recognised by Google, who acquired Makani Power in 2013. Following this success, Don Montague created and has devoted himself to Kai Concepts, which invest in maritime projects, one of which is none other than the Kiteboat, a precursor to SP80!

The Kiteboat project

The overarching aim of the Kiteboat project is to break sailing speed records and demonstrate the potential of powering boats using kites. Since 2006, more than 6 boats have been built and/or sailed in the San Francisco Bay. Kite sizes ranging from 16m2 to 110m2 have been used on these boats, which have evolved greatly over the years. For more information, we recommend checking out the project website: https://project.kiteboat.com/

Pictures: © Kiteboat Project

When speaking about SP80, Don Montague quickly identified one of its design strengths: Placing stock in the human factor and having safety at the heart of your project is very sensible!”. This decision echoes his mentality during the development of his various kiteboats: to go fast, you need to be confident and trust your equipment completely. Contrary to his boats however, SP80 has a closed cockpit, an additional safety measure for the pilot.

Regarding the kite, Don identified one key factor: “In my experience,  it’s important to feel the kite to be in control. Of course kites have evolved, conditions for the record will be different from the San Francisco bay, but I’ve learned that to gain the confidence to really floor it, we had to sense the kite. The learning curve was huge and we tried different configurations, which you might go through as well to find the one that best suits your project. But what you should do is come to San Francisco and try out the kite boat, you will learn so much”. We will be booking flights as soon as possible! Concerning the type of kite, Don Montague has tried everything on his boats: all sizes of inflatable, ram-air and even rigid kites! According to him, each model has its own advantages and disadvantages which must be clearly weighed according to the project factors. What about take-off?Launching a kite, even big, is not a problem. It might make it harder to launch in every condition but if you have some motorboats to assist you, whatever, just try until it works!

After having seen a video of the scale model in navigation, he enthusiastically tells us: “This is great, I’m super stoked for you. I’ve never experienced something this stable so maybe all the issues about kite control will not be relevant to you as your pilot will have very few adjustments to make!“, before adding: “I like your scale model. It would be interesting to have a pilot on it! In your shoes, that’s the first thing I would do… well, once the lake becomes warm enough! I’ll come and do it myself! Or you could bring it to Maui, Hawaï” It’s decided then, a trip across the Atlantic is on the agenda!

As the discussion came to a close, the co-founders found themselves swept up by Don’s energy. They themselves had extensively analysed the research done by the Kiteboat project, and received precious advice from the author of this work, the man who first dreamt of kite-propelled boats, and who in parting humbly told them: “Don’t take all my advice for granted. You will learn and you will adapt in accordance to your experience. Testing is everything, it will help you understand what is going on and then move forward. Read between my lines, the issues we faced are not yours.

We can’t wait to visit Don Montague in Hawaii or San Francisco, but in the meantime a huge thank you to him for his precious wisdom. Aloha!

This discussion was recorded by Aurore Kerr, communications manager
Picture of K2 Kiteboat: © Kiteboat Project
Portrait in header: © Betsy Pfeiffer

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